Queer Places:
71 East Ferry Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, USA
Gotham Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, New York City

Charles Lang Freer - Alchetron, The Free Social EncyclopediaCharles Lang Freer (February 25, 1854 – September 25, 1919) was an American industrialist, art collector, and patron. He is known for his large collection of East Asian, American, and Middle Eastern Art. In 1906, Freer donated his extensive collection to the Smithsonian Institution, making him the first American to bequeath his private collection to the United States.[1] To house the objects, including The Peacock Room by James McNeill Whistler, Freer funded the construction of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Charles L. Freer house in Detroit, Michigan, may be an example of the reticence to present the life of a man who was gender atypical, if not gay. Freer, a celebrated collector of Asian and contemporary American art (including works by Whistler, Dewing, and Tryon), dedicated a great deal of time to creating his famous Shingle-style mansion and filling it with beautiful objets d’art. A lifelong bachelor and highly successful industrialist, Freer is perhaps most famous for importing Whistler’s celebrated Peacock Room from a home in England. In myriad ways, Freer’s home seems a perfect location for a museum about his life. However, the mansion is currently used as offices for Wayne State University. According to William Colburn, a Freer House committee member: “There are hopes of having his home restored and although it is on occasion open to the public for visits or tours, it is not, nor is it likely to ever become a museum.” In light of these remarks, one must wonder why Freer’s home remains an office building rather than a museum; perhaps this is merely coincidental or even due to economic circumstances, although this seems unlikely given the description of Freer’s extensive art collection, which was bequeathed to the Smithsonian after his death: The gallery houses a world-renowned collection of art from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Near East. Visitor favorites include Chinese paintings, Japanese folding screens, Korean ceramics, Indian and Persian manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture. A highlight of the Whistler holdings is the Peacock Room, a dining room that was once part of a London townhouse. In 1876, Whistler lavishly decorated the room with a blue and gold peacock design. After the owner’s death, the room was brought to the United States and permanently installed in the Freer Gallery.

Charles Lang Freer was born in Kingston, New York, United States, in 1856.[2] He was the son of Jacob Roosa Freer (1819-1875) and Phoebe Jane Townsend Freer (1826-1868). He is a direct descendant of Hugo Freer, a New Paltz patentee and the first Freer to the United States. The third child of six, his family had little money. Freer's mother died when he was fourteen years of age.[3] After the seventh grade, Freer left school and took a job in a cement factory. In the early 1870s, Freer was noticed by Frank J. Hecker, then general superintendent of the New York, Kingston, & Syracuse Railroad, while working as a clerk in a general store.[1] Hecker capitalized on Freer's accounting and organizational skills, hiring the young man as his paymaster and accountant in 1874.[4]:17 In the 1870s, a group of investors from Detroit decided to build a rail line in Logansport, Indiana; they hired Hecker to manage the project. Hecker brought the younger Freer along.[2] Hecker's daughter, Anna Cynthia Hecker (1871-1923), would marry Freer's younger brother, Watson Marthis Freer (1863-1922).

In 1879, using connections made in the railroad business and the financial backing of a group of Christian H. Buhl, James Joy, Russell Alger, James McMillan, and Allan Shelden, Freer and Hecker moved to Detroit, where they created the Peninsular Car Company in 1885.[4] The business made both men wealthy and Peninsular became Detroit's second largest car manufacturer. In 1892, Peninsular merged with the Michigan Car Company, taking over the majority of the railcar market in Detroit. At the time, Michigan-Peninsular Car was Michigan's largest manufacturer.[5] Seven years later, in 1899, Freer organized a 13-company merger, creating American Car and Foundry in 1899.[6] In the late 19th century, Freer's health declined markedly. The economic depression of the 1890s paired with the stress of Freer's position within the company caused both physical and psychological trauma to the industrialist.[7] Freer was diagnosed with neurasthenia, a nervous condition widespread among the upper-class in the United States.[8]:78 Treatment for neurasthenia included long periods of rest, and men were encouraged to pursue activities in the wilderness. Freer's treatment included outings in the Canadian wilderness and the Catskills.[8]:79 In addition to travel as a means of therapy, in the 1880s Freer started collecting art.[9]:8 In 1899, Freer retired from industry, focusing his time and efforts on collecting art and travel.

Thomas Spencer Jerome met Charles Freer in Detroit, and the two became close friends, sharing intellectual, social, and artistic interests. On their travels together in Europe they were captivated by the island of Capri and decided to purchase a villa there. In 1900 they bought the Villa Castello, perched on a high point of the island with glorious views and lush gardens. That year, Jerome decided to retire to Capri and pursue his interest in Roman history. He spent his days reading, writing, and thinking about problems in Roman history and historical method. On Capri he assembled a large research library, which he left to the American Academy in Rome and the University of Michigan. In 1914 Jerome published a popular book, Roman Memories in the Landscape as seen from Capri.

Freer died in 1919 while staying at the Gotham Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, New York City of what was described as a stroke of apoplexy. He left the bulk of his art collection, more than 5000 objects, to the federal government; it is now housed in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Freer had no wife or children.[10] The legacy of Charles Lang Freer is not just his wealth or art collection, but it is also his generosity as a patron to artists and the public. The boy who left school to work in a cement factory ultimately presented the United States its very first collection of Fine Art.

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